Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Night Circus

Hot cocoa, spiced cider, popcorn with caramel, chocolate mice with licorice tails, pastry dipped in cinnamon-sugar... these are the tastes and smells of the magic Circus in Erin Morgenstern's delightful novel The Night Circus. The author seems to have intuited and absorbed the conclusions also being studied by the emerging science of neurogastronomy, that is, the exploration of a kind of synesthesia between taste and smell. The novel presents profound reactions and memories based on these senses.*

Several of the recurring events and experiences in The Night Circus are intensified by aromas and flavors. Food is vividly described (as well as interactions between the eccentric host and guests) at exotic Midnight Dinners held by one of the founders of the circus.
"Dish after dish is brought to the table, some easily identifiable as quail or rabbit or lamb, served on banana leaves or baked in apples or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries. Other courses are more enigmatic, concealed in sweet sauces or spiced soups, unidentifiable meats hidden in pastries and glazes. 
"Should a diner inquire as to the nature of a particular dish, question the origin of a bite or a seasoning, a flavor she cannot put her finger on (for even those with the most refined of palates can never identify each and every flavor), she will not be met with a satisfying answer. ... 
"The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers." (p. 70-71) 
"Dessert consists mainly of a gargantuan tiered cake shaped to resemble circus tents and frosted in stripes, the filling within a bright shock of raspberry cream. There are also miniature chocolate leopards, and strawberries coated in looping patterns of dark and white chocolates." (p. 301-302)
 In the circus itself, caramel and smoke smells and unimaginably delicious food and beverages like the cider and cocoa trigger both real and magical responses. The intensity of the story, which is multi-layered and sensual in many other ways, is constantly amplified by descriptions of both identifiable and mysterious aromas.

The power of aromas is especially captured in one particular scene in the novel. Little bottles and jars in one of the many magic circus tents hold aromas that trigger the memory of stories for Widget, one of the keepers of the circus tale. When a character opens it, one bottle behaves like this: 

"A small wisp of smoke escapes, but other than that it is empty. As he peers inside he smells the smoke of a roaring fire, and a hint of snow and roasting chestnuts, Curious, he inhales deeply. There is the aroma of mulled wine and sugared candy, peppermint and pipe smoke. The crisp pine scent of a fir tree. The wax of dripping candles. He can almost feel the snow, the excitement, and the anticipation, the sugary taste of a striped candy. It is dizzying and wonderful and disturbing. After a few moments, he replaces the lid and puts the jar carefully back on the table." (p. 314)
This character, Bailey, who is being brought into the circus to make it last forever, experiences Widget's little bottles, especially one that preserves the memory of an oak tree on his family farm:
"He pulls out the minuscule stopper, relieved that it remains attached to the bottle with a curl of wire. 
"The sensation inside is so familiar, so comforting and recognizable and real that Bailey can feel the roughness of the bark, the smell of the acorns, even the chattering of the squirrels."(p. 359)
The book has a wealth of other magical aspects, relating to the two central characters Celia (who wears a deeply personal perfume!) and Marco. Celia's father Prospero, one of the magicians who sets the events going, is especially fascinated by Shakespeare, and he would have liked to name her Miranda, but she answered only to Celia, perhaps because he had nothing like the control of Shakespeare's Prospero over his little island realm.

Secrets and stories -- like the ones Widget collects -- are an intimate part of magic. One of Widget's stories is often mentioned by the magical circus people -- it's the tale told of a wizard who revealed his secrets and was imprisoned in a tree by one of the enchantments he himself disclosed. Like the Shakespeare theme, it's totally absorbing, but I'll limit myself to what I've said about aromas and tastes, rather than trying to review the book as a whole.

*The science of taste and smell as I refer to it, is described in the book Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters by Gordon M. Shepherd, and other sources. Shepherd provides strong arguments against the old belief that the human brain is deficient in processing aromas and flavors, and he describes in detail how the brain creates flavor-smell images. It's not necessary to be scientific to read The Night Circus, but the connection is fascinating. The author does credit a perfumery called Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, though not that I noticed any scientific writing!


~~louise~~ said...

Wow Mae, this book has much to offer by way of the tummy doesn't it? It seems to be one of those books some bloggers "cook." As much as I'd love to read it, I can't even imagine where I would fit it in, such a shame really.

Thank you so much for sharing and keeping me up to date on "food in literature."

~~louise~~ said...

Hi again Mae! Just popped by to wish you a very Happy Birthday!!! Enjoy each and every moment; and bite:) Louise

Mae Travels said...

thanks, Louise!

Story Time said...

Mae--reading this on your recommendation. It is truly a magical book!

Story Time said...
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